Too small for NHL? The story of Juuse Saros

He has been outstanding throughout his career so far. How has he done it? How did Juuse Saros become the Juuse that Finnish hockey-following people know?

It's fall 2012 in Hämeenlinna, Finland. Visiting team has just scored against the local U20 junior team HPK. Their goalie had good vision for the puck but was surprised by a quick shot to the top corner. The scorer did a great job.

It was a goal that every goalie lets in during their career, some more often that others. I hear a comment from the crowd that underlines the level of performance that Hämeenlinna was used to see from their young goaltender.

"I have never seen him allow such a soft goal", a team mate watching the game from the crowd says.

Young goalie had been outstanding so far but now there were some obvious bumps on the road.

“If that is the case, he would quit hockey straight away.”

Goalie or nothing

Juuse Saros was born in Forssa, Finland on 19th July, 1995. His family moved to Naantali when Juuse was three years old. After spending four years in Naantali the family moved to Hämeenlinna because of the father's job but they moved back to Naantali after just one year. In 2005 the family finally settled in Hämeenlinna.

As a kid Saros played ice hockey, floorball and soccer. His first time between the pipes was when he was eight years old. He played for the local neighborhood junior league where the teams were named after NHL teams. His team was Edmonton Oilers.

Saros' first proper team vas VG-62 in Naantali. The kids played in every position but Saros really liked playing goalie.

"When he was nine years old he wanted a glove and a blocker for christmas. When he was ten he joined the HPK Hämeenlinna juniors. I told the team that my son would like to play as a goalie" Juuse's father Pekka Saros says.

It wasn't that simple, however. As a matter of fact it was quite close that Saros wouldn't be a hockey player at all.

"The team answered that they have already decided the goalies. I told this to Juuse and he told me, frankly, that if that is the case, he would quit hockey straight away" Pekka Saros laughs.

"I contacted the team again and told them about my son's temper. I suggested that they would let him play goalie at practices at first. They agreed and that was it"

When Saros was 13 years old he only played as a goalie. Around that time he quit playing floorball. He had quit soccer couple of years earlier. Now he was fully concentrating on hockey.

Goaltending coaches behind the success

At the age of 14 Saros played with HPK U16 team. The team was put together from junior players from Hämeenlinna, Riihimäki and Hyvinkää. The team also practiced in Hyvinkää, a town which is roughly a 50 kilometer drive away from Hämeenlinna.

During those drives Saros and the team's goaltending coach Antti Meriläinen really got to know each other. Meriläinen describes 14 year-old Saros as a really coachable player.

Backyard hockey in Naantali. (Family archives)

"Every day he arrived at the rink with great attitude. He was always willing to learn new things. And the things we practiced transferred to his playing really quickly. That's quite rare with players that young" Meriläinen tells.

It was clear from young age that Saros was really diligent and talented. His father recalls a story that happened after his son had attended a summer hockey camp. The coach had told players about how important it is to stretch every day.

"One morning he stretched for fifteen minutes before breakfast and it became a habit for him for many years. He started it when he was in elementary school and continued it through junior high school. Every morning whether it was a Monday or Sunday. He even stretched on Christmas." Pekka Saros says with a smile.

The other goaltender on HPK U16 team was a Pohjola camp all star Joonas Toivonen. Meriläinen was a goaltending coach at the camp and he had chosen Toivonen as the best goalie on camp.

During the season Toivonen was the number one goalie and got a few more starts than Saros. Afterwards Meriläinen had said that most likely Saros would have been ready to play more even then. After the first season with U16 team Saros said that he wanted to play with the U18 team.

Goaltending coach for HPK U18 and U20 teams was Teemu Lukkari. He decided that it would be best for Saros if he played one more season with the U16's.

"He would have been good enough to play in U18's but I wanted him to be the starting goaltender in U16's so he could become a winning number one goalie" Lukkari tells.

During his second season with HPK U16's he was the undisputed number one goalie. He was also chosen as the best goaltender in the league. Saros also made his first appearances with Finland's U16 national team although HIFK goalie Ville Husso played most of the games.

Statistically Saros was incredible with the U16's but Lukkari saw things that needed improving. He faced a lot of shots in games but most of them were unnecessary.

"He made 50 to 60 saves per game but most of them were unnecessary rebounds. He didn't read the play too well but he could save the rebounds with his athleticism." Lukkari describes.

Under the tutoring of Lukkari Saros was taking strides in his play. According to plans Saros would have played the whole season 2011-12 with the HPK U18 team. It was Lukkari's thought that it would be good for him to play for two seasons at same league before taking the step up.

After a fantastic fall Lukkari and HPK U20 head coach Olli Salo couldn't resist giving Saros a chance with U20 SM-liiga.

Saros quickly took his position as the starting goaltender for the team. The team made it to the playoffs and Saros finished the season with a bronze medal around his neck. Someone could say that the rest is history, but that would not be the case.

"I always saw that he was a great goalie but also thought that he was too small."

"I am the number one"

Let's rewind back to fall of 2012. Saros had started his second season with HPK U20 but things weren't going well. Saros was letting in unusually soft goals.

"He seemed angry and tight. He had set a bar for himself and it was really high. He was really critical towards himself" Lukkari reveals.

"Playing became forced because he thought that he had to be above the bar he had set for himself. We had to work to make playing enjoyable again. He had to became more relaxed so he would be able to get his flow back"

 
 

The duo got back on track. Saros was the number one goalie when HPK U20 won their first ever Championship.

Although he was great with HPK, the games with national team weren't going so well. He had one more obstacle to overcome.

"He was playing in Husso's shadow in the national team. His biggest problem was mental. He was too nervous and it showed in his play" Lukkari tells.

It sounds almost unbelievable considering that Saros' mental toughness is one of his biggest strengths now.

"Juuse was really humble and modest. He was too humble and modest. We worked on the nervousness a lot. I tried to get him to adopt an attitude where he could say to himself that he is the number one goalie for the national team without being cocky" Lukkari describes.

Finally the mental exercises paid off. During the 2012-2013 season Saros was number one goalie for Finland's U18 team. He played all games in U18 World Championships in Sochi. He was praised by his own and by his opponents.

"Saros won USA basically by himself. I've seen only a few of his games but he seems outstanding" Connor McDavid told Jatkoaika during the World Championships.

Finland won the bronze medals and Saros was selected as the best goaltender in the tournament. Although everything seemed to be going smoothly Saros doubted himself before the tournament.

"He told me that he was really tired, both physically and mentally. In the locker room he was thinking by himself about how could he be a winning goaltender in the World Championships" Lukkari recalls.

Saros thought about it for a moment and then started walking towards the rink. On the way he had decided that he would imagine he wasn't going to play in the World Championships but, instead, was playing roller hockey and having fun with his friends in Hämeenlinna.

Too small or athletic enough?

Summer of 2013 was exciting for Saros. He was eligible to be drafted in the NHL.

Scouts had taken notice when Saros was playing with HPK U20 team. He got more attention after the successful Sochi tournament.

Despite outstanding statistics and great abilities there was something that would affect drafting Saros, and there was nothing he could do about it. NHL teams like big goalies. Saros was only 5'10".

"NHL teams started drafting big goalies and we didn't take Juuse so seriously. I always saw that he was a great goalie but also thought that he was too small. But he never played poorly" Nashville Predators' scout Janne Kekäläinen recalls.

Predators had three picks on fourth round. They drafted center Felix Girard and sold one of their picks to St. Louis Blues. The third pick they used to take Saros.

Predators weren't supposed to draft a goaltender at all. Pekka Rinne has just signed a seven-year and 49 million dollar contract few years back. Predators also had goalie prospects in their system behind Rinne. They had Swedish Magnus Hellberg and Czech Marek Mazanec.

Saros fell on Preds' lap as a 99th overall pick.

"I was expecting him to go earlier. All of a sudden he was still available on fourth round. Our head scout asked me to come over and asked me if we should pick Saros. I said that we should absolutely do that" Kekäläinen says with a smile.

GM David Poile believes that Saros would have ended in some other team if he just was a bit taller.

"Teams don't draft many goalies that are 6-foot or under. If he was taller he would have gone in the first or second round. His size has been an issue throughout his career so far and it will be until he makes it in the NHL regularly." Poile says.

"Athletically, he is on elite level. Not just compared to other goalies but compared to other athletes, too."

Lukkari and Saros have developed techniques that helps Saros play bigger.

When he drops down he keeps his posture higher. That helps him cover the top of the goal, but Lukkari also believes that it's better for the hip joints and helps Saros move better.

"Juuse thought about these things himself and every once in a while I asked him what kind of situations he would like to practice. He would tell me and I would make up a drill for the situation." Lukkari says.

When playing floorball and soccer as a junior Saros was never a goalie. Playing on field helped him develop his play between the pipes. He would read the play better and would be one step ahead of the situation.

He was also mentally tougher. Mental toughness was one of the best known qualities when he made it from the juniors to Liiga.

"I don't know anyone who is mentally tougher and had developed so much. He succeeds in every challenge we give him and he does it superbly." Kekäläinen praises.

"Juuse's biggest talent is his devotion and how determinedly he practices. That makes him a top athlete." former head coach Salo says.

Juuse Saros

b. April 19th 1995

Club: Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

Nashville Predators' 4th round draft pick 2013.

Achievements:
  • 2011: U16 Finnish league best goalie and best player
  • 2012: U20 Finnish league bronze
  • 2013: U20 Finnish league gold, selections for best goalie and best player, U18 WC bronze & best goalie of the tournament
  • 2014: Finnish league rookie of the year, U20 WC gold, men's WC silver
Family: Father Pekka, mother Leila & big brother Eemeli.

Turning pro with a bang

After winning the U20 Finnish championship with HPK it was time for Saros to take the next step of his career. It was time to turn pro.

HPK had two young goaltenders. Saros, then 18, was joined by the 22 year-old Edmonton Oilers prospect Frans Tuohimaa.

The more experienced Tuohimaa seemed like the number one goalie before the season. He had already played pro with Jokerit and Kiekko-Vantaa.

"Many people told me that at some point Saros would stop improving and would even take some steps back. I always believed that he would make it in the Liiga." says Lukkari.

Saros himself had thought that he would be the backup goalie and maybe start 20 or so games but he quickly realized that he would be able to play in Liiga. Soon he adjusted his goals and was competing hard to get the starting goalie's spot.

"I really wanted to play as much as possible and take a big role in the team. I didn't want to settle for a backup role." Saros says.

Jumping from juniors to pros was a smooth transition, thanks to HPK goaltending coach Kari Lehtonen who shared same kind of thoughts as Lukkari. Saros was the starting goaltender well before Christmas.

One of Saros' season highlights were the U20 Junior World Championships in Malmö, Sweden. He was the number one goaltender when Finland took home gold. Saros was on a Finnish morning TV show the very next morning with head coach Karri Kivi. It was obvious that the hero goaltender didn't party too hard the night before.

During the tournament Tuohimaa got his chance to show his capability. When Saros got back home Tuohimaa was stuck back on bench. He was quickly sent to Mestis, the second highest-level hockey league in Finland. Saros played all the remaining games that season.

The end of regular season was a fairytale for HPK. They weren't supposed to reach the playoffs but they did it by finishing the season with an eight-game winning streak. They swept Jokerit, but the winning streak was snapped at ten when Kärpät finally swept HPK on their way to the Championship.

The season was over for HPK but not for Saros. Finnish national team head coach Erkka Westerlund chose Saros to be the third goalie and it was off to Minsk for Saros. Finland won silver in Belarus.

Although Saros didn't play it was a great experience for him. He got to meet Pekka Rinne.

"It was really cool. I had watched his games since I was a little boy. Now I got to see from up close how good of a goaltender he is." says Saros.

Rinne was mentoring young Saros during the tournament. He told Saros how he handled moving from Finland to North America.

"P.E. at school was especially tough for me. I would lose my temper easily, especially if my team was losing."

Yet another victim

Saros didn't have time to rest after the long rookie season. He was graduating from high school and it was really important for his parents.

"Professional sports is not always a sure shot. We have told Juuse to take care of his education properly so he would have future in other professions too." says Pekka Saros, who is the principal of a local school in Hämeenlinna.

After graduating it was time for mandatory military service. With that and school Saros only had two weeks to rest during the summer. It also showed in his play when the season started.

"It was quite similar to when I played my second season with the HPK U20 team. I tried just to not think about it and not feel any pressure. I tried hard to just enjoy playing." Saros remembers.

HPK had signed 30 year-old veteran goalie Joni Myllykoski during the offseason. He had won a Finnish Championship with JYP Jyväskylä a few years earlier. But it didn't take long for Saros to get his game back on the track.

Just like Tuohimaa a year earlier Myllykoski had his chance to raise from Saros's shadow when the young goalie attended his second U20 World Junior Championships, this time in Canada.

The tournament was a huge disappointment for Finland and for Saros personally as well. His old rival Husso had taken the starting goalie's spot during the tournament.

After returning to Finland Saros quickly took his place and played superbly. History repeated itself when Myllykoski ended up leaving HPK to find a new team where he could play more.

"It has been the case throughout his career. Saros has always taken his place even though he has been younger than the others." says Meriläinen.

Goaltending is mentally tough business. There can be only one goalie between the pipes and if you're not playing well you might end up sitting on the bench for a long time.

"It's quite cruel but you cannot start pitying the other." Saros says.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Despite the intense competition Saros seems really calm when he's playing. He's quite the opposite for hotheads such as Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall.

"I rarely show it outside. There's not too much physical contact in my position. I would have to go battling in the corners. I lose my temper when I'm playing other sports." Saros says.

"Sometimes I have to calm myself down if we're playing with friends. P.E. at school was especially tough for me. I would lose my temper easily, especially if my team was losing." Saros laughs.

Saros is always ready for games even with the risk of losing his temper. In spring 2015 just before the World Championships in Czech Republic one of his friends was asking him to attend an amateur floorball tournament.

"I was in the middle of a training camp for the World Championships when my friend asked me. I told him that if I got cut from the team I could come." Saros says with a smile.

The floorball tournament had some games during the week so Saros wasn't able to leave the camp. Players had the weekends free so when the floorball tournament playoffs started on weekend, Saros was able to attend.

According to the reports he didn't lose his temper too bad. His team actually won the tournament and Saros was chosen as the team MVP.

In Czech Republic Saros made his debut with the national team in World Championships. Rinne had the flu so Saros played against Slovakia. He shut Slovakia down in his debut, but after Rinne got better Saros didn't get another start.

"It was really emotional. I had been playing in HPK for ten years."

Farewell to the hometown crowd

March 10th 2015 was a remarkable date for Saros.

It was quite certain that he would leave to North America for the next season. HPK didn't have a chance to reach the playoffs, so the final home game of the regular season would also be last home game with HPK for Saros.

Saros is usually really calm after the games, but after that one he wasn't. With tears in his eyes he managed to answer the many questions the reporters shot at him.

"It was really emotional. I had been playing in HPK for ten years. I was emotional before the game and after the game when I got to thank the fans. It's definitely an experience I will remember for a long time. Kind of bittersweet." Saros recalls.

During his short career Saros had risen to the top. When he won with national junior teams people have sometimes been all over him. Media and other people, friends and relatives. Everyone wanted to talk about hockey with Saros. The family made a decision to handle the situation.

"The amount of attention from outside the family was so huge that we decided to not talk about hockey. We emphasized other things in life. School, friends and family" Pekka Saros remembers.

"Of course I would ask after the games if Juuse wanted to talk. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't" dad smiles.

Saros is ready but he also has time

After two really successful pro seasons it was time for Saros to leave Finland. In june Saros signed a three-year entry level contract with Predators.

Rinne is still the undisputed number one goalie for the Predators. He plays as much as he wants to. Carter Hutton is a good choice for backup spot.

During the summer Predators made way for Saros in their AHL team Milwaukee Admirals. Predators traded their second round pick from 2011, Hellberg, to New York Rangers. In Milwaukee, Saros joins 24 year-old Czech goalie Mazanec.

"There's no need to be too humble. It would be ideal if I got to play many games in the AHL." Saros said in August before heading to Nashville.

There's much to learn for European goalies. The rink is smaller and the style of play is different. There's also lot to learn outside the rink. The family isn't near to help with difficulties.

"Obviously it's a really big thing. Fortunately modern techniques helps to keep in touch." Pekka Saros says.

Both Hutton and Mazanec have their contracts ending after this season. Predators want to see who is their guy for the backup position for Rinne for next season.

"I strongly believe that Saros wouldn't flinch if he was thrown in the NHL straight away. It is good for him to learn the North American style of play in the AHL though." Kekäläinen says.

Just like coach Lukkari has said: Saros has time, there's no need for rushing anywhere.

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